Denali poses by his recipe selected by Healthy Lunchtime Challenge.

Denali poses by his recipe selected by Healthy Lunchtime Challenge.

9-year old’s cooking passion leads him to the White House

Budding Juneau chef Denali Schijvens, 9, has been baking for his family and friends since the age of two when he helped make the cake for his grandmother’s 90th birthday. Now, he’ll be having a lunch with 55 other kids from across the U.S. who won the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge at the White House with First Lady Michelle Obama. White House chefs will prepare a menu featuring several of the children’s original, healthy recipes.

This challenge is a part of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative. The challenge is simple: kids across the U.S. between ages 8 to 12 make and submit a healthy, balanced recipe of their own creation to promote cooking and healthy eating, and a child is selected from each state, territory and the District of Columbia. The winners will be flown to Washington, D.C. for the event held on July 14, which is the same day the e-cookbook of all the children’s recipes will be released online at pbs.org/lunchtimechallenge.

In a phone interview with the Empire, Denali said he was a bundle of excitement when he found out he won, expressing his happiness and surprise at being selected to go to the White House.

“I want to shake Barack Obama’s and Michelle Obama’s hands,” he said.

Having one of his recipes be selected in this competition by the First Lady is another big step for the young chef who has already baked original cakes for his classmates at Harborview Elementary School’s harvest festival, and for dessert auctions for the Juneau World Affairs Council.

Denali is representing Alaska with his original recipe for a whole-wheat crepe with sour cream, lettuce and halibut dribbled with blueberry sauce paired with a spinach smoothie. It took him two weeks to develop the recipe, he said. There were certain parameters he had to follow, such as representing each of the food groups in a single dish or as part of a full meal. Entrants were encouraged to visit choosemyplate.gov to ensure dishes met the USDA’s recommended nutrition guidelines and to put some homegrown flavor in the dish.

Denali had the idea for his recipe right before he was falling asleep one night. When he first tried making the smoothie, it turned brown from the strawberries, which Denali thought made it look unappetizing, so he took them out. He also ran into the challenge of finding fresh salmon, and so substituted halibut for it.

“Who in Juneau would want non-fresh salmon?” Denali said, saying he hadn’t used halibut much before, but now loves it. For more of a taste of Juneau, and because he enjoys them so much, Denali added blueberries for a special pop of flavor.

“I go crazy for blueberries, completely crazy,” he said.

Prior to the competition, Denali had been health-conscious about food, especially at home meals with his family or with his creations, never using store-bought icing for his cakes due to the high fructose corn syrup and other artificial additives. But watching a video Michelle Obama did on healthy eating still had an impact on his life.

“I stopped having soda and chips,” he said.

Denali is quite serious about his craft, speaking about baking and cooking with an ease that comes from experience and practice, seasoned with passion.

“His entire world is cooking and baking and coming up with original recipes,” Denali’s mother Meilani Schijvens said.

For birthdays and Christmas, he asks for cooking supplies, Schijvens said. This last holiday season, Denali got a pasta attachment for the KitchenAid, which he uses to make his own noodles from scratch.

[4-year-old takes the cake.]

“He’s a force of nature,” she said with obvious pride in her voice.

When he is not tinkering on his own in the kitchen, he is cooking with Nancy Hemenway, his mentor who first told him about the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge. He got cooking lessons with her for his eighth birthday. Denali said she is his cooking partner and teacher.

“We both teach each other things, of course,” he said. “Though she teaches me more.”

Denali said he wants to participate in more cooking competitions, and hopes to not just win in Alaska but on a national level, too. In the future, he hopes to be a professional chef and open his own restaurant.

• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at clara.miller@juneauempire.com.

Denali is featured by the wedding cake he made for his teacher Zach Stenson.

Denali is featured by the wedding cake he made for his teacher Zach Stenson.

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